On the day South African Airways was expected to announce the completion of its 15-month business rescue process, it faced a new threat from its pilots that might further delay the airline’s return to the skies.
The pilots — most of whom are members of the SAA Pilots’ Association — said they would embark on a strike over a dispute about outstanding salary payments and the conditions of their retrenchment.
The pilots have been locked out of SAA since December 2020 as the dispute has intensified. The association said a majority of its members (98.7%) voted in favour of a strike and for SAA to retrench them, which might pave the way for their salaries and other remuneration benefits to be paid by the airline.
The association has given SAA 48 hours’ notice of the strike — a first for the trade union in its more than 50-year history.
The SAA business rescue practitioners recently informed Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) that the business rescue proceedings might end as early as Wednesday, 31 March 2021. SAA has been grounded for a year and there’s no indication when it will resume commercial flights — although it returned to the skies in February when it air-freighted 80,000 vials of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine from Brussels.
The strike means SAA will not be able to use any pilot belonging to the pilots’ association if it were to resume flights, until the labour dispute is resolved. The airline wouldn’t have pilots available because about 90% of them belong to the association. The pilots wouldn’t be available to conduct simulator training, which is crucial for airlines that, like SAA, have been grounded for a long time and pilots that haven’t clocked up the required flying hours or recency.
At the heart of the dispute between the pilots and business rescue practitioners is an evergreen collective agreement that regulates the employment terms and conditions of pilots. The practitioners have argued that the agreement breaches labour legislation and have asked pilots to accept a new, three-year, collective agreement, which involves reducing all pilots’ salaries by 50%. The Department of Public Enterprises has argued that SAA pilot salaries are out of whack with industry norms, saying the average annual pilot salary is R2.9-million, rising to R5-million for senior captains.
The pilots’ association said on Wednesday pilots have been targeted in a “vindictive and slanderous fashion” by the rescue practitioners and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, who fired a broadside at pilots during a recent Scopa meeting, accusing them of “sabotaging SAA from getting off the ground”.
Association chairperson Grant Back said pilots cannot sabotage SAA while they remain locked out of the airline. “The very pilots needed to do the required training are locked out by the company, with the blessing of the [department], and any attempt [the union] has made to work together with the company or the [business rescue practitioners] for the last 15 months has been met with disinterest, and our many attempts to assist or reach a compromise have been blocked at every opportunity.”
The association has asked SAA and the rescue practitioners to formally retrench pilots no later than 15 April and pay them three months’ notice pay. It also wants all existing agreements with the airline terminated on the date at which the last association member leaves the employ of SAA.
The pilots “have endured and withstood over three months of lockout and were last paid a year ago. The company has now realised it actually needs the highly skilled pilots it has locked out and is attempting to force a selected few back to work, while comically attempting to blame the pilots for the decision to lock them out”. DM/BM
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